Identity is important: It’s the torch with which a soul must navigate many of life’s meanders; otherwise, it finds itself lost, disconnected, and without resolve in its hollow places. At 27 years of age, few other things have defined my identity as my Nigeria.
In the summer of 1993, I was barely 10 years old when I snuck out of the house to participate in my first political experience –a post-Election Day riot. The military junta that blanketed Nigeria has just annulled the results of the most applauded presidential election to date, and tires and cars were being burned, with businesses shuttered in fear. And there I was, at a junction less than a mile from my house, waving a green tree branch, observing with giddiness as college and polytechnic students made their dissatisfaction known.
Alas, 17 years later, it’s the only time I’ve seen or heard Nigerians go out in such forceful numbers to decry the horror and injustice of a powerful leader. Needless to say, the dictator, General Ibrahim Babangida, consequently abdicated power in a hurry. And yes, I did get the punishment I had coming upon returning home, my mom kindly saw to it. But they were tears worth shedding for Nigeria.
The story of Nigeria is a complicated one. Founded in 1900 as two separate entities—Northern and Southern—by the British Empire, it soon became one in 1914 when it was fused together by the British administrator Sir Frederick Lugard. His wife, Flora Shaw, gave Nigeria its name by playing on the name of the great River Niger in her column in The Times of London.
With an estimated population of 154 million, Nigeria is the largest congregation of any black people on earth. And its peoples are as peculiar as can be, with over 400 languages and dialects. For example, I do belong to the Yoruba tribe in southwestern Nigeria; yet, the town from which my father hails speaks, in addition to the Yoruba language, a language that could as well be Russian to any other Yoruba man.
However, in 2010, Nigeria is regrettably far worse than she was in 1960 (A statement for which many Nigerians will berate my sensibilities: call me a controversialist, a pessimist, a negativist, and many other colorful names in the book—nonetheless I remain unshaken). My view, as a matter of fact, is staunchly concurrent with the critical assessment of Nigeria at 50 by the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. In his opinion, those celebrating “were born into an entity, into a muddled example of what a developing society should be.”
Poverty in Nigeria has doubled from 35% at independence to a staggering 70% in 50 years.
Healthy life expectancy for a Nigerian has forever stagnated at about 42 years since independence. While, a nation like Indonesia, which became independent about the same time as Nigeria and has parallel troubles, has dramatically increased its life expectancy from 45 years to 75 years in the same period.
In a report released this past August by the U.S. newsmagazine Newsweek, Nigeria ranks second to last among 100 countries evaluated—with countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Kenya, and Madagascar outpacing and outranking Nigeria.
Power supply in Africa’s most populous nation remains a joke (a joke to which the rich are the only ones laughing). Nigeria’s power production on a typical day is less than 4,000 megawatts—enough to meet the demands of a medium-sized U.S. city and not a population of 154 million people. Worse still, only 17.2 percent of the population has access to pipe-borne water according to a United States government report.
For all these and more, a myriad of postulations could be summoned. Maybe this is the consequence of colonialists butchering and hacking their way through Africa and forcing together regions and peoples that had no business being considered a single state. Maybe African nations, like Nigeria, were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle the rigors and challenges of such disastrous decisions once independence came along. Or more importantly, maybe the over-riding reason lies in the attitude and culture of Nigerians, even at Independence (and still 50 years later).
As the Yoruba leader Obafemi Awolowo would put it in 1960: “There had never been a properly organized countrywide demand for independence which had been spurned or contemptuously turned down by Britain.” In essence, there was never a substantiative struggle for Independence by Nigerians—the British left when pressure from home and the new superpower, the United States, became unbearable. It was this wave and change in worldview that saw 17 other African states gain independence in the same year Nigeria did.
In the years that have since followed, Nigeria’s leaders have suffered a severe crisis of conscience, engaging in acts of overt corruption and misrule.
The sadder story has been the reluctance of most Nigerians to forcefully denounce the actions of their leaders. Corruption has been so institutionalized that citizens rarely bat more than an eyelid when another leader is caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Few brave ones have stood up to the malady that has enveloped Nigeria and paid the ultimate price—names like Dele Giwa and Ken Saro-Wiwa come to mind. While others like Wole Soyinka, Nuhu Ribadu, retired Justice Oputa and a few more continue to put Nigerian present and past leaders to task.
But ultimately, few Nigerians are willing to go the distance in stopping the culture of corruption and graft that has decimated and continue to decimate Nigeria. Or punish the culprits. “Nobody wants to die,” a friend once wittingly opined.
Yet, everywhere you turn, Nigerians will say “Let’s continue to pray.” I find it hard to fathom a God that comes to the defense of a nation of cowards; a nation unwilling to invest its own blood in its own survival. At no point in history has freedom ever come free…never. The oppressor never out of sheer grace relinquish power to the oppressed.
So excuse me, if at 50, I’ll rather be having a tense conversation that leads to action on the ground, rather than an aimless and short-sighted celebration. It’s one thing to be proud to be a Nigerian, as all Nigerians should patriotically be—for better or worse. But it’s another thing to celebrate with pomp 50 years of fruitlessness.
Citizens must begin showing up, in the thousands (instead of the negligible few hundreds we’re used to seeing), at rallies and protests organized by community and national activists. In the age of mass media, there’s no reason why through Facebook, Twitter, and other media, Nigeria’s youth cannot forcefully be the voice for the change they want. The youth of America have given us a blueprint of how this can be done with their all-out efforts in the election of President Obama.
Though for 50 years, lives have been battered, and hopes repeated dashed in Nigeria—I’m still hopeful for a giant Nigeria (and not just one in census numbers).
All said, Nigeria will spend $63 million on Independence celebration, while over 100 million Nigerians wallow in abject poverty. Talk about misplaced priorities and undisciplined leadership, the very bane of Nigeria’s experience since Independence.